Monday, January 24, 2011

Regrets, I've had a few - Pop Culture, 2010.

So it's been a while...and I have a huge backlog of posts to make, all the way back to Thanksgiving[i]. However, since a couple pieces of pop culture had been bouncing around in my head, I thought I'd take a different tack than the usual top 10 of 2010 lists, and look at what surprised me, for better or worse, this year in the world of pop culture. Please note, given that I am 1) getting older, 2) not cool or hip, and 3) live in Texas, there are some items listed below which are from prior to 2010. This is just the year I got around to experiencing them.

The Better Than Expected:

Book – The Passage
I have an odd fascination with post-apocalyptic fare in general. I am hard pressed to turn down a good zombie/cataclysm/dystopian, etc movie. However, as we are currently swimming in a red, salty tide of pretty horrifically bad vampire books [ii], I was reluctant to go near anything with “vampire” in the description. So when I heard people raving about “The Passage” I wrote it off [iii]. However, I got it for Christmas, and recently picked it up for lack of anything else to read. It was surprisingly good. And not just “good-as-vampire-books-go”, but good in general. It is at heart a study in human character. The plot sometimes seems almost an excuse, a framework on which to hang artful character portraits and poignant moments. The level of writing is wholly unnecessary for the story. He could have banged this thing out in half the time and still had an engaging book. But the level and depth of the writing is really worth the price of admission. Minor characters are developed to an amazing degree. The scope of the book covers centuries but without feeling like it shortchanges any piece. The pacing shifts wonderfully throughout, but without ever feeling indulgent. The “vampires” are never really the focus, they're just a foil for the human interactions. And the author, an English professor at Rice University, really really gets the downsides of Houston. It almost feels like this is the next book in the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” series [iv], except that this time, the literature aspects and the horror movie aspects aren't separate, mismatched elements thrown haphazardly together as shtick. They're integral parts of a greater whole. The only aspect that slightly dimmed my enjoyment was that the “vampires” glowed a bit. Taken by itself, it is nothing. But it's just a little too close to the slippery slope that leaves you with glittery abstinence oriented mopey vampire teenagers. All in all, a fantastic read regardless. Be warned, the ending, while able to be satisfying in and of itself, is really geared to initiating the second book of what has been proposed to be a trilogy. I can take that or leave it, but it is more ambiguous than I think the author would have made it if it was going to be a one-shot.

TV – Survivors
There are a host of great TV shows as of late. I can't remember ever watching this much “TV” [v]. NBC “is my master now”, with Community, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, etc. being weekly treats. I'd like to think that this is because TV is better now. Having grown up in the sitcom wasteland of the late 80's and early 90's [vi], I'm just ecstatic that the current generation, all of their electronic diversions and glittery vampires notwithstanding, is getting some decent TV[vii]. So in that context, I really had no need to go searching for older shows to discover. However, on a friend's recommendation, I checked out the now-canceled BBC series “Survivors”. It is another post-apocalyptic setting (notice a trend?) but devoid of the usual zombies/vampires/etc-as-metaphoric-foil-for-dark-side-of-humanity. Humanity is nearly wiped out by disease, with only a few survivors left. The show spends a lot of time on its characterization, and has a much more rounded feel than a lot of America series in the same genre. The characters aren't easily definable stereotypes (Angry Loner, Confidant Leader, Love Interest, Black Guy Who Dies Really Early, etc). There are some bits that are a bit funny in their inherent Britishness [viii], but all in all it's a great series that does what any good story telling should do...make you subconsciously care and be concerned for its characters. I hadn't expected it to be anything more than a bad sci-fi channel made for TV movie level of production, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Movie – Avalon
So to round out what is an unintentional trio of post-apocalyptic/dystopian fare, I offer up Avalon. Avalon is easy to describe, but hard to really give a feel for the nuances of. Essentially it's a Polish dystopian Matrix clone. When friend recommended it to me as such, I had high the sense that I hoped he was high, because what he was saying was not making a lot of sense to me otherwise. However, when you dig into this film, there is a lot to like, and it's not hard to do so. The movie is shot in Poland and stars Polish actors. It is dubbed in English (and dubbed well), but I actually switched to the Polish because it seemed to add something to the atmosphere of the movie. It's a dystopian future, where the primary occupation of the shiftless and cyber elite is an all encompassing online virtual reality game called Avalon. The director is Japanese, adding another element, and what you end up with is a really well scripted and paced movie borrowing equally heavy from a beautifully shot aesthetic, Japanese anime story influence [ix] , and British Arthurian mythos. While this mishmash of influences could have lead to a fractured, unwatchable mess, it ends up melding into a really fascinating watch. The storyline is engaging, and the acting is pretty decent (especially the main character), but what really makes this movie great is the cinematography. It's shot like an art film. Long, pregnant pauses...reflections on shattered landscapes, slow pacing, much of it in an illuminated sepia-esque tone. It's really a pleasure to watch, visually. Even its “Did she or didn't she?” ending feels satisfying. Like most stories that appeal to me, the characters are the focus, and the story serves them, rather than vice versa.

Music - Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

This was a pretty great year for music [x]. There were a lot of great albums by a lot of old favorites. None of them are getting mentioned (yet) because they were what I expected, good stuff. This list, of course, is for the surprises and expectation breakers. When a friend recommended Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, I wrongly expected yet another entry in the dreary sea of neo-80's angsty synthesizer driven pop/alternative with silly names that has muddied the waters this decade. I was not expecting the rootsy, alt-country elements and salt of the earth drive of this group. Songs like “Beg, Steal or Borrow” end up being an interesting mix of sounds, from tinges of Iron & Wine-esque folky rock to more sparse, devastating passages like some of Johnny Cash's later works (American IV, etc), to some roots rock/country flavors. In the end it was equal parts unique and equal parts reminiscent of another dark horse favorite of mine, Findlay Brown. While a lot of groups have tried to go down this route and ended up sounding like clones of existing artists or just came up short, RLMATPD pull it all together for a great album. I wasn't expecting anything, and was greatly surprised with what ended up being one of my favorite albums of the year.

However, there were some long expected or much hyped efforts that I just didn't connect with this year. These are a few of the standouts. They are not all necessarily BAD per se, just not what I expected.

The Disappointments:

Music – Sufjan Stevens, Age of Adz

I am a big Sufjan fan (as I know some of you are as well) so I tread lightly here. As much as I am enamored of Illinois and Michigan, I did not expect him to continue making States albums. I am completely OK with that. Nor did I expect him to continue making the same KIND of songs. I am always excited to hear an artist reinvent themselves, as long as it's a move forward. Unfortunately, Age of Adz just wasn't what I was looking for. It's not bad, per se. I appreciate Age of Adz. I like that it seems purposeful. But it does nothing for me. I've never had an album that I anticipated so much be so uniformly bland to me. And I really tried to like it. It feels disconnected, jangly, cacophonous. Like Sufjan got drunk and made an album with Animal Collective, and then they never bothered to edit the raw tracks. Again, it's not without artistry, but for me it's like a discussion I had with my sister about photography once long ago. I was looking through a catalog of shots she had, and there was one in which a photographer had essentially taken a black and white picture of a puddle in a field. Nothing great about it in technical terms (composition, etc), and nothing emotionally compelling about it. Our discussion centered around process (what the photographer had to do to get the shot) and result. I held that without a result that touches on something universal, the process is irrelevant to anyone but the artist. I feel this way about a lot of abstract art. You can tell me your series of three slightly different shades of red-colored circles represent war in Bosnia or man’s eternal quest for self-fulfillment, and use a lot of artistic jargon to describe it, but without some link, without some context, it's just three red circles, which are not complelling in and of themselves. The process, the artist's mental context is useless to anyone if the end result isn't compelling of it's own regard. At least that's always been my take on art. I don't need realism. But if it is something that doesn't appeal to something universal, I need it to be outstanding on its own, not to have to rely on context that isn't readily available. This is sort of how I feel about Adz. I'm sure there's some deep stuff going on there, but a lot of it is inaccessible to me.

Book – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (WARNING, MILD SPOILERS.)
There is a reason most first novels don't do well. It often takes one or two out of the gate before an author has gotten past that initial experience and has the perspective to really control all aspects of a book. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle started out strong. It's a compelling story, and the writing is literature grade in places. I absolutely loved this book for the first eight to quarter of the book. Then things went downhill. It changed from a great character study of a family and a legacy into...well, it couldn't make up it mind what it wanted to veered from a dip into a Marquez-esque magical realism oddness, to a Jean Craighead George style coming of age metaphoric solo journey story, but then abruptly back to a family tragedy, and then ended up being (SPOILER HERE.) a poorly rendered Shakespeare remake. I didn't know anything about the book before reading it. I didn't even read the dust jacket notes. So I was completely surprised when it ended up just being Hamlet. With Dogs. And Ophelia? A Dog. Who thinks and talks like a human. Yeah. What started out well paced and well written just descended into sheer chaos and hack authoring. It was an idea without a context. Or conversely, it was a horrible idea (again, Hamlet, with Dogs!) that occasionally broke free into some decent writing. (/SPOILER) I am willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but this book was a mess, and a pretty huge disappointment.

Movie – Black Swan
With all the hype built up around the movie, I expected more. I saw several much-hyped movies this year, but was generally entertained by most. Inception, for example, was blockbuster-y, but pretty decent overall, etc. But Black Swan...well, it just fell flat in pretty much every aspect. I had expected a tense psychological thriller, character driven and subtle....what I got was a poorly acted, gore-centered mess. Portman hasn't delivered a decent acting performance since “Beautiful Girls”. She remains the female Keanu Reeves...wooden, and with only three emotional settings [xi]. There is no character development, we are given a premise with nothing to back it up. We are expected to empathize with her and the tremendous pressure she's under, but we're never shown anything that would explain that pressure. We see some generic dancing segments, and a mother who's vaguely authoritarian, but nothing that gives an sort of external context for the emotional breakdown. Despite the best efforts of some really great supporting actors (Kunis notwithstanding), Portman's performance just can't be saved. Her character doesn't fall into madness so much as she makes an abrupt switch from sane-and-perky to crazy-stabby-psycho. There's no gradation. And it happens so early on, there's nowhere else to go with the performance. Kunis is likeable, but gives a Tom Cruise performance [xii], even in what must have been a risky girl on girl love scene decision (which is one of the only scenes that feels anything close to emotionally honest). The quick descent into madness is further hampered by an over-abundance of blood and gore [xiii]. What could have been a delicately handled psychological character study feels clumsy and underwhelming, and the suspense dies pretty early on.

TV – Tie – Glee/Battlestar Galactica/The Walking Dead
As much as I have lauded the quality of TV recently, there have been a couple shows that I have been pretty meh about. To some degree this is due to how many friends have absolutely raved about them. But even viewed as objectively as I could [xiv], I just couldn't figure out the level of appeal for Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and Glee. What's odd is that, given my personal history and leanings, these should be instant wins. TV about show choir, dystopian science fiction, and zombies? Yes please. But each ended up being less than its potential in a way that just doesn't do it for me.
Battlestar Galactica
I often have something on in the background (netflix or Hulu shows)
while I am editing photographs or ironing. Both are tasks that can be somewhat time consuming and repetitive. Having exhausted the available seasons of other shows I had taken a chance on (Dexter, Survivors, The Tudors), I went looking for something else. BSG had just been added to netflix, so I gave it a shot. A lot of my friends absolutely raved about the series, especially those who, like me, have at times exhibited tendencies toward unrepentant sci fi geekery. I liked the general concept, the new talk on the classic show, but it just didn't meet the bar that had been set for it. The acting is decent, with notable exceptions (ahem, Starbuck.). But overall, it quickly devolved, in the first season, into standard Star Trek-esque plot lines. If their ships had run on dilithium crystals, I'm sure they would have run out by episode three. Overall, it felt very much like the old post Star Trek TNG series. Not bad, light fare, but nothing weighty or outstanding. It's not bad, worth watching in a pinch, but I' never tune in specifically to see it. Just sort of generic sci fi to me. Maybe it gets better in later seasons, but I'm 10 episodes in and already I'm pretty damn tired of “OMG is he/she a Cylon??”.

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead, like about 85% of pop culture, especially movies, these days, started as a comic book. I had encountered it as a graphic novel form of the first however many issues before the series aired. The B&W style of the comic, while not being noted for fantastic art, served the purpose, but the characterization and suspense it generated were great. Like I've mentioned above, it kept you on the edge of your seat about the characters' fates. It was pretty good...for a comic book. I was warily optimistic of the movie version, even though the odds were against it [xv]. AMC has done some great things with fantastic shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, so I gave it a shot. Unfortunately, a combination of a somewhat shallow depth of material (great story, but not exactly literature) and an inexplicable decision to mostly abandon the plot and pacing of the original left the show somewhat messy. This was further compounded by a cast that really had no standout performances. It was sci fi made for TV movie caliber talent. Not what I'd expect from AMC. It was a great attempt, but failed a bit in execution. Survivors was much more compelling with only humans as sources of fear.

Glee –
And here's where the avalanche of hate mail would start if anyone actually read this blog. I preface this by saying I have eagerly watched the first season of Glee and part of the second, and probably will continue to do so, because despite its failings, the show has an exuberance that's just fun. But this falls strongly in the “guilty somewhat-of-a-pleasure” category. The main problem I have with Glee is the writing. The songs, the performances? For the most part they're very enjoyable. But the writing sometimes feels like they took a great premise and gave it over to fanboys to write. The continuity is non-existent. Characters act completely different from episode to episode, or do things to serve the storyline that bear no explanation in terms of their character. The dialogue is often laughably bad, even though the occasional joke hits home (though some borders on the offensive..."ha, she's a dumb cheerleader! or "hah, he's gay and that's funny".) This would be fine if the show was intended to be absurdist/non-realistic like “Community”. No one expects Community to make sense or questions bizarre events, because it's self-referential and it's not intended to be realistic. It's knows it's absurd and points it out on a regular basis. It's pure comedy. The problem with Glee is it doesn't know if it wants to be Community, Fame, or DeGrassi Junior High, and ends up trying to take the worst elements of all three and paste them together for long enough to bridge the gap to another song. There are some great performances on the show, but none of them are from the characters the show focuses on. It continually stresses a message of uniqueness and individuality, but you could swap out some clothes and update some dialogue and essentially you have a witless Breakfast Club with full-on stereotypes....Popular Jock! Pretty Popular Girl who's really Sad! Weird Girl! Sassy Black girl! Shallow Gay Guy! It's like they're animated characters. There's little if any development among the main characters. And that being said, one its ultimate failings, for me, is that I really don't LIKE many of its main characters that the show believes, sincerely, we should like. Mr. Shuster? Self-centered, living through his kids vicariously, hypocrite. He cheats, he disregards what his kids want to chase dreams from his past...and he treats everyone like a victim. Whenever anyone's in trouble, he has to save them. The character as portrayed is selfish and immature, even with moments of sacrifice. But we're expected to see him as a flawless hero. Other major characters are simply to bland or two dimensional to think about. Rachel is an ongoing shtick, Finn can't sing at all and never seems like he's actually there, Mercedes has an amazing voice but gets pigeonholed into “sassy black woman” as much as Kurt “gleefully” accepts the role of flaming, overly-melodramatic gay stereotype. Some great performances are put in for the Sue Sylvester, Puck, Quinn (less so), Emma, etc. When they let her get away form her over the top insanity, Sue Sylvester ends up being one of the most rounded characters on the show. Even when she and Will are sparring over his latest endeavor, part of me is saying “you know, she's kinda right...”. I watch the show for the up moments, and have resigned myself to the fact that it can't decide what it wants to be. But overall, I honestly can't say “this is a good show”, especially in the context of the hype. It's unique, but unique isn't enough if what's unique is how bad the writing is. It either needs to stop trying to be a dramatic comedy and cut out the ludicrously maudlin “after school special” moments that get sandwiched in, or really embrace a dual role as more than just an afterthought. Lastly, while I'm not even remotely a prude, there are a couple scenes, especially dealing with overly sexualized dance routines by the cheerios, where I thought...this is supposed to be about high schoolers, and it's remotely a family show, right? It just seemed out of place with the rest of the show. Oh, and Matt Rutherford. Who's matt, you might say? And rightfully so. Matt has the distinction of being the only full time, regular glee club member who got no character development. Having trouble remembering Matt? You're not alone. He's the dancing black guy who never talks, and then gets ousted without much explanation after season 1. He gets all of 1 line, and it's about 7 words long. Literally. Whole season, no talking or anything other than dancing around. I know not every character can get the limelight, but EVERY other character gets at least SOME subplot or attention...even Mike Chang the other "dancing footballer" gets to solo dance a lot, and makes it to season 2. Poor Matt, we hardly knew ye. Seriously, this is ridiculous writing.

[i]To say I've been busy as of late is like saying I may have slight concerns about Sarah Palin's presidential fitness or am slightly unnerved that Jersey Shore “star” Snooki has a book on the bestseller list; in all cases, an extreme understatement.

[ii]Most of which make Anne Rice's per-conversion, touchy-feely male vampire-centered, wish-fulfillment stuff from a decade earlier look like enduring literature by comparison. Vampires should, in my book, be merciless killers, not angsty teens who are dehydrated because all the water that enters their body leaves through their eyes. As Tears. Glittery, glittery tears.

[iii]When I heard the author was young, and from Houston, I went back and mentally added several more lines over that write-off, and salted the earth such that I thought no interest would ever grow in that mental space.

[iv]Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Hilarious in concept, not so much in execution.

[v]75% of the “TV” I watch these days is via Hulu/Netflix/etc., rather than on an actual TV. It reminds me of the old conundrum...if you have a boat that slowly has pieces replaced over years and years, to the point at which there is no piece of the original boat left, is it still the same boat? If you no longer watch television program on televisions, is it still watching TV?

[vi]Even though we may have fond sentimental memories of shows from that era, go back and find an episode of something like the A-Team, or Airwolf, or any other favorite. Literally almost unwatchable. For a “don't ever do this again” warning, go watch any episode of “Full House”. If you can make it through it without wincing I owe you a beer.

[vii] Or maybe it's just that TV has gone to the extremes, with Jersey Shore confidently entrenched in the shallow end of the pool.

[viii]The “villain” in the early part of the series has the characters totally overwhelmed because he has...a gun. Just the one gun. As compared to their American counterparts, who would have a bristling armory of weaponry ready to shoot anything that moves about three minutes after the outbreak cleared, it never occurs to the lead characters that THEY TOO COULD GET SOME GUNS. It speaks volumes about our respective societies. Personally, on my “when the zombies rise” to do list, “loot nearest gun store” is pretty high up there. But then, I live in Texas, so I'd have some catching up to do in the gun ownership department.

[ix] It's not animated, but aspects of the storyline, dystopian atmosphere, characterization are very akin to some of the more “westernized” anime like Cowboy Bebop, which, despite its silly name, and well, Edward, is about as fantastic an animated series as I've encountered. (It's like a Japanese bladerunner, but cooler and with great jazz.)

[x]If the new Decemberists album had dropped in December instead of January, they might be up for this spot with their fantastic comeback after Hazards of Love. HoL was great for what it epic rock opera, but it's not in touch with what people listen to or how people listen to it. In 1977 this would have been revolutionary, but now it's like a lot of abstract art to me....I appreciate its quality, I recognize its artistry, but it doesn't move doesn't reach me. I don't mind working to appreciate something, but there has to be some return on investment. I don't have time to spend on things that will only ever yield a spartan, emotionless appreciation.

[xi]Which I suspect are controlled by a switch on her back. The difference being they have trade out the “Whoa..” setting on her model for “hysterical yet unbelievably unemotional weeping”. It's like watching a toaster cry. Natalie would fail the Turing Test.

[xii]In that she essentially plays herself regardless of the role. It's not so much Mila Kunis/Tom Cruise as character X in Movie Y, it's “Oh hey, Mila/Tom showed up while they were shooting a movie, and decided to be walk-ons”. You never believe them as a character because it's always them. People label actors who lose themselves in roles as “character actors” as if it was a diminutive form of “actor”. Personally, I think they've got the relationship reversed.

[xiii]This is the traditional path of the horror/thriller who gives away the thrill too soon. The scariest parts of monster movies are before you see the monster. The suspense and the fear of the unknown are always scarier than the actuality. Once you've shown the monster, the only place left to go is gore/shock.

[xiv]Which mostly consists of keeping MTV loaded up for the “previous channel” button, so I can use Jersey Shore as a baseline if I need to put it in context.

[xv]It was to be a TV series, and of the big budget comic book movies, only one or two have, in my opinion, been watchable or true to their origins.